"Can My Employer Do That to Me?" Find Out If You're Being Treated Fairly


"Can my boss do that?"

It's surely a common refrain nationwide, especially in the current desperate economic climate. Labor and employment laws are complicated beasts, often filled with deceptive terms such as "right to work", which actually has a lot more to do with keeping unions down than anyone's right to work.

With unionization at record lows nationwide and lawyers who offer pro bono advice stretched to their limits, it is hard for workers of any shade of collar to know where to turn for help answering the question "Can my boss do that?" A new website launched by the Chicago-based national group Interfaith Worker Justice offers a good start.

The user-friendly site covers a comprehensive range of the most common workplace related legal terms and situations, providing explanations and answers in clear and concise terminology that breaks down nuances without overwhelming the already-stressed out worker with too much text or extra detail.

The home page features a section tailored to workers facing job loss, with information on severance pay, health insurance including the new stimulus COBRA provision and how to "not get scammed" in looking for a new job. There is a warning that the viewing or emailing of the site may be tracked on work computers...and the strategic disclaimer apparently meant for employers' eyes: "Ethical employers should not have to face competitors who violate laws and basic decency. This site seeks to have all work honor justice and respect the laborer and employer."

In some cases the answers leave you wanting more context, such as the description of Right-to-Work: "Right-to-Work laws have nothing to do with whether you can be fired. It's a way to take power away and give workers the Right-to-Work for less."

But the entry on "Fighting unfair treatment" is more typical of the site and comprehensive:

"Even if it's not illegal, you can try to fight unfair treatment. Some companies have internal grievance procedures, (although it may not be impartial). If you have union protection, you have many rights to fair discipline and appeal.

Non-union workers do not have the right to have a co-worker present when they are questioned. You don't have the same job protections as a union member, since you can still be fired with no good reason. Even though it's not a right, you can ask to have a co-worker with you. A witness and advisor can help."

The sections covering worker health and safety and workers' comp appear extremely useful, giving detailed checklists of what one needs to successfully file for workers' compensation and what to do if you are hurt at work.

The site also breaks down the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the 1935 law protecting a workers' right to collective organizing. It lays out the separate laws for railway and airline workers limiting their ability to strike, and outlines which industries are not covered by the NLRA. (It is widely known that farm workers and domestic workers aren't covered, but you might be surprised to learn that neither are employees of religious organizations or of horse and dog racing tracks.)

There are helpful downloads and links throughout the site, including copies of actual laws, contact information for government agencies and a directory of National Labor Relations Board offices. The section on unions explains both workers' rights to organize a union and their rights within a union. If those rights aren't being respected, the site tells you how to change unions or get rid of a union, with information tailored by state.

Interfaith Worker Justice (previously known as the National Interfaith Committee on Worker Justice) has a long history of working in partnership with unions and with non-union workers in a variety of community-based and democratic campaigns, including creative actions and civil disobedience. Their staff and affiliated faith-based leaders and "workers centers" nationwide probably have first hand experience with nearly every subject covered on the website. They are known for being energetic and effective supporters of union campaigns, while also being quick to help workers fight for their rights within a union or opposing an undemocratic or sluggish union.

For example the section on a union's fair duty of representation reads:

"Representatives of the union (elected leaders, staff, and shop stewards) can't discriminate against a worker because of union politics (for example, because a worker spoke out against something the union was doing or supported another candidate in a union election). The union cannot play favorites. They must represent every worker who is covered by the contract -- members and non-members. The union cannot make a non-member join in order to represent her grievance or discipline case. Unions have to give a reasonable level of representation, but the standard is pretty low."

This winter Interfaith Worker Justice was deeply involved in the successful struggle of workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago, where more than 200 workers occupied the factory after it was closed suddenly and they were not given federally mandated notice or severance pay. In the face of the occupation and surrounding public and political pressure, two major banks extended loans to cover the money due workers, and a California-based manufacturer of green building components ended up buying the factory and promising to hire workers back. Republic Windows workers were represented by the UE union, whose organizers and supporters were on top of the complicated legal issues involved. But since their high profile victory, the Republic Workers have heard from countless other workers nationwide whose legal rights were violated, and who didn't know it at the time or didn't know where to turn. This website should be a valuable aid for workers across the country and across the spectrum of industries and positions.

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